The Hero's Redemption

By: Janice Kay Johnson

PROLOGUE

“NO GUY IS ever going to be interested in me! I tower over all of them!” Alyssa Enger wailed from near the back of the extended van.

The other nine girls cried out in denial.

“Why did I have to take after my dad?” Alyssa moaned.

Erin Parrish hid her grin as she changed lanes on I-5 in northern California to pass a slow-moving RV. As head coach of Markham College’s women’s volleyball team, she also did the driving for away games. Her assistant coach, Charlotte Prentice, was considered too young at twenty-three to be trusted behind the wheel of a vehicle insured by the college.

Alyssa was the team’s middle blocker because she was six foot one. Erin had met her parents—a mom who, at only five-eight or so, was the shrimp in their family, a dad who had to be six foot six and two younger brothers who’d already shot past Alyssa in height.

“Boys are scared of you because you’re so beautiful,” declared Stephanie Bell, a setter. “And there are lots of guys taller than you.”

Maybe not “lots,” but some.

“Have you met Emmett Stark?” someone asked.

“Eeew!” several girls squealed.

Outright laughing now, Erin glanced at Charlotte, whose face was lit by laughter, too. Emmett Stark, freshman and Markham College’s JV basketball center, would surely grow into his body eventually. Right now, he was so skinny he looked ridiculous.

“We should dress you up as an Amazon for Halloween,” another girl said. Ella Pierce? “Maybe we could use gold paint, and you could carry a spear.”

“Where can we get a spear?” someone else asked eagerly.

“Ohh! I know.” Ginny Simacek bounced in delight. “My brother’s girlfriend did this volunteer thing in Africa, and she brought one home with her! I bet I can borrow it.”

Erin narrowed her eyes at the rearview mirror. Was Ginny wearing her seat belt? Could you bounce if you were wearing one? The girls had a way of taking their seat belts off for “just a minute,” because they had to grab a bag from under a seat or find a shoe that was kicked off, and then, oops, forgetting to fasten them again.

“Charlotte…” Erin began.

Motion caught from the corner of her eye spiked her adrenaline. She turned her head. All she took in was a swirl of dirt and the monster cab of a semitruck roaring straight at them across the median, rearing bigger and bigger. She wrenched the steering wheel and her foot sought the brake, even though she knew it was too late.

Then crunching metal, stabbing pain, screams. And nothingness.





CHAPTER ONE

JOLTED AWAKE, ERIN lay utterly still, her heart pounding. What—But the shuddering sense of horror answered an unfinished question. Which nightmare had it been? The crash itself? What she’d seen as she was extracted from all that was left of the van? The faces of parents? The empty seats in her classroom?

She stared at the ceiling, unable to make herself move. She could stay in bed all day. Never get up. No one would notice; no one would care. She had no place to be, not anymore.

Voices played in her head, as they so often did.

You’re so lucky. Yep, that was her—lucky.

God must have saved you for a reason. Because He’d condemned her to purgatory?

You still have the chance to do something extraordinary.

Make your life count. That one had come with an encouraging squeeze of her hand.

Who’d told her she owed it to the dead to be happy? She couldn’t remember. Probably hadn’t been able to look that person in the face.

Nope, of course she wasn’t to blame. She was only the driver. The one all those girls had trusted to get them safely where they were going. They’d trusted her in other ways, too. As an assistant professor of history, lecturing from the front of her classroom, she maintained an invisible distance. But with her team, it was different. She knew every girl—her strengths, her vulnerabilities, her fears, her dreams.

There’d be no more dreams. Just her own nightmares.

The ceiling, she slowly realized, needed painting as much as the walls. What had probably once been white had yellowed, like pages in an old book, even showing the brown spots a book dealer would call “foxing.”

Eventually she rolled her head enough on the ancient, flat-as-a-pancake feather pillow to see the clock—7:26. She’d slept for maybe three hours.

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